This is an excerpt from a thesis by Thomas Lee Anderson on ” JOHN BENNETT WALTERS, TOTAL WAR, AND THE RAID ON RANDOLPH TENNESSEE”
Raid on Randolph Tennessee – Total War
Central to Walters’ thesis about Sherman’s development of a plan to wage “total war” against the Confederacy, including its civilians, is an incident that occurred at Randolph, Tennessee in September 1862. Sherman’s actions at Randolph, Walters claims, show that the general, after learning that some shots had been fired at a Union packet boat, began to wage “total war” against the civilian population of Tipton County by “ordering that vengeance be wreaked on the town because it happened to be near the scene of the trouble.” According to Walters, Sherman responded to the report that the Union boat Eugene had come under fire near Randolph by ordering Col. C. C. Walcutt and his 46th Ohio Volunteers to burn most of the town, but to leave one house standing to mark the spot. In this way, said Walters, Sherman intended to discourage further attacks on Mississippi River boats. This action was, Walters claimed, an unrestrained use of military force against innocent civilians and it constituted a violation of the accepted rules of war. He insisted that Sherman waged “total war”—the unrestrained use of military force against a civilian population—on hapless residents of Randolph, a town in West Tennessee, in Tipton County. In Walters’s view, “all restraints were being cast aside.” But did Walters provide an accurate account of what happened at Randolph? A closer examination of the incident sheds new light on Sherman’s actions and on Tipton County in the autumn of 1862. And it also gives some new meaning to John Bennett Walters’s interpretation of the affair.
On Tuesday, September 23, 1862, the packet boat Eugene, on its regular trip
downriver from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, carried freight, passengers, U.S. mail, and Union officers. According to some reports, the Eugene had freight and two passengers bound for Randolph, but other sources claim the packet boat was decoyed into landing at Randolph by a man who hailed her from shore. In any event, when the boat landed at Randolph at about 3 P.M., there was no one in sight. The ship’s clerk, Mr. Dalzell, stepped ashore and headed up the hill to find out what was afoot. Suddenly the doors flew open at one of the derelict warehouses at Randolph. Out leapt a crowd of thirty-five armed partisans, led by a certain “Col. Faulkner,” who took Dalzell into custody. Despite having a pistol held to each side of his head, Dalzell called out a warning to the Eugene. With this, the ambushers began firing at the boat as those on board attempted to take the Eugene back into the currents of the Mississippi River. Women and children poured out onto the decks to see what was happening. The captain and the pilot, who were also on deck, ducked for cover, and only the quick-thinking of the ship’s engineer, who scrambled under fire to reach the helm, allowed the Eugene to escape the armed attack. No one was injured, but there were dozens of bullet holes in the pilot house. Upon reaching Memphis that evening, the crew, along with Union officers who had been aboard, provided Gen. Sherman with a detailed report concerning the attack on the Eugene at Randolph.15 As for Mr. Dalzell, the ship’s clerk, according to the unnamed reporter for the Louisville Daily Journal, he was taken to Col. Faulkner’s camp ten miles distant from Randolph where he was threatened with hanging and finally released and escorted back to the Randolph area. The reporter pointed out that Faulkner and Dalzell were acquainted with each other through their travels on the river.
In Walters’s account, he criticized Sherman for jumping “to the conclusion that this attack was the action of guerillas, and casually brushing aside the possibility that it might have been made by Confederate soldiers.” But Walters ignored a great deal of evidence about the Randolph incident in order to level his criticisms of Sherman. For example, the attack was made in broad daylight with dozens of witnesses on board the Eugene, none of whom reported seeing Confederate soldiers. If the attackers were soldiers who were out of uniform then they were worse than guerillas, they were spies. Walters overlooked important parts of Sherman’s orders to Col. Walcutt of the 46th Ohio Volunteers. While Sherman did order Walcutt to burn the town of Randolph (with the exception of a single house), he also instructed him to “let the people know and feel that we deeply deplore the necessity of such destruction, but we must protect ourselves and the boats which are really carrying stores and merchandise for the benefit of secession families, whose fathers and brothers are in arms against us. If any extraordinary case presents itself to your consideration you may spare more than one house; but let the place feel that all such acts of cowardly firing upon boats filled with women and children and merchandise must be severely punished.” Sherman also ordered Walcutt to have his quartermaster make a list of all property destroyed in the raid along with the names of the owners so that damages could eventually be paid if warranted.
These additional details about Sherman’s orders to Walcutt mitigate the view of “Sherman-as-terrorist,” which Walters urged in this article. There are other details that Walters overlooked or, perhaps, purposely neglected. How much damage was really done at Randolph? What size town was Randolph? Were businesses targeted? Was the economic system of Tipton County attacked?
Raid on Randolph Tennessee – Location
Tipton County, Tennessee, where Randolph is located, was an agricultural county in the western part of the state where families raised cotton and corn and hogs, as they do today. The western boundary of the county is the Mississippi River, and at one time (before 1837) some people in Randolph hoped their town would become a major shipping point for local cotton. They aspired to compete with Memphis, a larger port forty miles downstream at the mouth of the Wolf River.
When Tennessee held its referendum on secession in June 1861, the state voted almost 3 to 1 in favor of leaving the Union. The city of Memphis did not wait for that vote; it seceded from the Union four days after the South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter in April. In Tipton County the vote on June 8, 1861 was 943 for secession to 16 against. All 16 “no” votes were said to have come from the hamlet of Portersville, where a few Yankee families had settled. In 1862 Tipton County was a hotbed of Confederate feeling and of civilian resistance to Union efforts to pacify West Tennessee.
Raid on Randolph Tennessee – Founding of the Town
The town of Randolph was founded in the late 1820s. Despite the desire of the settlers to create a place that would become a commercial rival of Memphis, specially during the times when Memphis was struck by outbreaks of yellow fever, the depression of 1837-38 hit Randolph hard when the price of cotton sank to 8.5 cents per pound from 17 cents. In addition, a period of low water in the Hatchie River, which formed the northern and eastern boundaries of Tipton County, caused cotton to be shipped overland to Memphis rather than downriver to Randolph, creating more economic woes for the town. The town’s only bank closed in 1837, while its newspaper, the Randolph Recorder, folded that same year. Then a sand bar began to form at Randolph, a part of the natural process by which the Mississippi regularly alters its course, that made it increasingly difficult for steamboats to dock there. Moreover, the bluffs began to collapse forming a series of huge “steps” 20 to 30 feet above each other. Two other
disasters struck Randolph: The proposed railroad route through Randolph was relocated to Memphis, and a proposed canal linking the Hatchie and Tennessee rivers was killed by politics in 1832. President Andrew Jackson, and others, opposed internal improvements funded by the federal government.
According to an area resident, Randolph “was the most flourishing business river town in West Tennessee on the Mississippi.” He claimed that if the canal had been built connecting the Tennessee River with the Hatchie, Randolph’s growth would have been assured and Memphis would have remained forever, a “village at the mouth of the Wolf.” Alas, after the railroad route was lost to Memphis, Randolph’s businessmen moved
downriver to Memphis, and “Randolph as it was, is now only in name, and lives alone in the history of ‘Old Times in the Big Hatchie Country.’” By 1845, Randolph was a ghost town.
Raid on Randolph Tennessee – After the Burning
Following the opening salvos on Fort Sumter, in April 1861, a letter from an
unnamed Tipton County resident appeared in the Memphis Appeal suggesting that state authorities send troops and artillery to Randolph. In the letter the author referred to Randolph as a “near deserted village that was once the mighty arch-rival of Memphis.” Randolph was, the writer claimed, the perfect place, high on the Chickasaw bluffs, from which to defend Memphis from an attack by Union forces on the Mississippi. Tennessee Governor Isham Harris promptly dispatched Lt. Col. Marcus Wright of the 154th militia regiment at Memphis to Randolph where, on the site of the “near-deserted village,” Fort Wright/Fort Randolph was constructed. Some of the town’s derelict buildings provided lumber for the construction of warehouses, while an underground powder magazine was
dug out of the banks of the Mississippi. By early May it was reported in the Memphis Daily Appeal that 400 men were in training at Randolph. At the end of May, soon-to-be Confederate Generals John Sneed and Gideon Pillow hosted a visit to Fort Wright from several Memphis-area ladies who were “sumptuously entertained.”
During the summer of 1861 officials from the Confederate national government came to Tennessee to take control of the troops and the defenses. There was a great hue and cry from concerned citizens worried about the loss of local control, but they were mollified by both Confederate and Tennessee officials who assured them of convergent interests. In July Fort Wright was closed; the troops and equipment were moved upriver to Fort Pillow. Randolph became once again a near-deserted village along the Mississippi.
Sherman, says Walters, “exploded into action” when he heard the report of the attack on the Eugene. By nightfall on September 24, 1862, the Ohio Belle and the Eugene were filled with the Ohio 46th Volunteer Infantry along with a battalion of artillery. Sherman had suggested to Col. Walcutt, whom he placed in command of the expedition, that he send one boat past Randolph to see it would draw fire; if it did, Walcutt and his troops
would know then what they were up against at Randolph. The flotilla reached the area before daybreak on September. The Ohio Belle landed Walcutt and his troops below Randolph while the Eugene steamed up the Mississippi as far as Fort Pillow without drawing any fire. Meanwhile Walcutt and his troops reached Randolph without resistance. They found no town, only a mostly deserted village with six houses and dozens of abandoned and derelict buildings left over from Fort Wright and from older
projects at Randolph.
The soldiers let the tiny number of women residents know their orders and the reasons for Gen. Sherman’s instructions to burn their homes. The troops gave the locals a few hours to remove their belongings. A relative of one of the women later wrote that the Yankees were very helpful—there was one woman who was bedridden so they came to her assistance to move her and her possessions out of the house (and then, once she was gone, they helped themselves to such of her property as they desired). Then the soldiers burned what buildings there were in the town, except for the single structure Sherman had ordered to be left standing. Although it was a sad and stressful day for a few West Tennesseans, the assault on Randolph cannot be said to be a prime example of what Walters—and later historians—would call “total war.”
[Anderson, Thomas Lee, August 2009, John Bennett Walters, Total War, and the Raid on Randolph Tennessee, Western Kentucky University, Masters Thesis & Special Projects]